Sex & Reality: “One Flesh Union”

In the past I have written about Lauren Winner’s Real Sex, and I want to do so again, as part of a larger conversation.

Bouquet and I have a pair of good friends who are in their early-to-mid twenties and who are in a dating relationship which is getting “pretty serious.”

They recently approached Bouquet wanting to discuss the issue of sexuality, in particular asking the question, “Based on Christianity, is it really the case that ‘sex outside of marriage’ is wrong?'”

Great question, and one that I am always asking myself, and so I want to blog about it.

I want to start with a line from CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, specifically from Book III entitled “Christian Behavior,” and chapter 5 of that book called “Sexual Morality:” “[t]he … Christian rule is “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or abstinence.”

First off, notice that Lewis is saying that marriage and not “a wedding ceremony” is a prerequisite for sex, on the Christian view. This is an important point because nowhere in the Bible is there a clear precedent for, or a clear teaching on, a wedding ceremony. Instead, what there is clear teaching on in Scripture is something called “one flesh union.” This is what is portrayed in Genesis (Gen 2:24) and in the sexual theology of St. Paul which always has the creation narrative(s) — or as Lauren Winner puts it in her book, the original order of God’s good creation which we see in the creation stories — in view (see I Cor 6:16 for Paul’s direct quotation of Gen 2:24).

In other words, even if the the Bible does not seem to have a lot to say explicitly about wedding ceremonies, it does clearly teach that sex goes with marriage. And so the question becomes, “What is marriage?” And the answer to that question is seen as elsewhere in the two verses cited above: marriage is one flesh union.

Now what is interesting about that is the word “flesh.” For, as Winner alludes to in her book, both the Greek and the Hebrew words (sarx and bassar, respectively) for “flesh” point in two directions are the same time. The word can mean “body,” and / or it can mean something like “the holistic life of the self” or the “one’s own life in its totality.” For the former meaning see I Cor 15:39 or II Cor 7:5, and for the latter see, again, I Cor 6:16. (There is a third meaning of the word which is less important for our purposes, though it is related to this second meaning: it can refer simply to the human person or to humanity as a whole, as in Jn 17:2 and Acts 2:17, and a fourth meaning can be “the sin nature” as we see in Gal 5.)

So when the Bible portrays the man Adam and the woman as “one flesh” it is referring both to both meanings. To quote Lauren Winner:

“One-fleshness … captures an all-encompassing over-arching oneness — when they marry, husband and wife enter an institution that points them toward familial, domestic, emotional, and spiritual [one might also add: financial, psychological, and social] unity. But the one flesh of which Adam speaks [in his “love poem” in Gen 1:23] is also overtly sexual, suggesting sexual intercourse, the only physical state other than pregnancy when it is hard to tell where one person’s body stops and the other’s starts.”

What is marriage? It is a relationship of holistic unity with another person, and this includes at its center the bodily unity of sex. Because this holistic unity involves so much, because there is so much at stake — physical health, emotional health, economic health, social health, psychological health — it requires commitment.

The kind of lasting commitment one finds in biblical portrayals and descriptions of covenants. And it is here, in the need for commitment, where the actual marriage ceremony becomes a serious matter, and one which wise people will consider very seriously.

To summarize, does the Bible teach that one must get married before having sex? I am not sure if it does or not, but I know that it does teach that one must be married before having sex (although it requires this not as some abstract law, but rather as a way to protect the health or shalom of the person), and a wise person will recognize that the best way to start being married is actually to get married.

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